More than a ship’s surgeon: William Anderson

William Anderson was born 28th December 1750. Although he attended Edinburgh University, he qualified at Surgeon’s Hall in London in 1770. In 1772 he joined Captain James Cook on his second voyage as surgeon’s mate on HMS Resolution.

Learning objectives

1. Find out more about William Anderson

2. Explore the transferrable skills of clinicians

3. Reflect on whether the qualities of a good doctor are timeless

The second voyage was designed to search for postulated land mass Terra Australis Incognita, a southern continent thought to provide balance to the known northern continents.

terraTerre Australle
Image taken from

During this voyage, Anderson demonstrated his capabilities beyond that of a surgeon’s mate. Despite not being formally educated in natural science, he did manage to collect specimens from the places he visited and made careful descriptions of the things he saw. Anderson also excelled at language and was able to compile a number of Pacific vocabularies. He did keep a journal during the second voyage, although unfortunately this did not survive. Anderson soon after the voyage contracted tuberculosis.

AndersoniaThe botanical genus Andersonia.
Image taken from

Impressed by Anderson’s abilities, not to mention his regard for naval hierarchy, Cook recalled Anderson for his third (and final) voyage in 1776, this time as Surgeon. Cook was tasked to locate a Northwest Passage. Unlike the previous voyage, Anderson’s journal for this expedition did survive. This time we can see evidence of his ethnological research:

A sample of Anderson's transcriptionsA sample of Anderson’s transcriptions
Image taken from


What transferable skills do doctors possess?

In his journal, Anderson made a number of observations about the voyage. He also sometimes included insights into his own character which includes the following entry:

SATURDAY 28th SEPTEMBER 1776: The morning hazey with small rain & fresh breezes from NW. In the forenoon it gradually lessend till very gentle & a little after noon shifted to sw or ssw. It raind all the rest of the day & in the evening the wind came round again to the q or wsw. A considerable sea from the NW. Steerd Ebs. The ship made a great deal of water at the side seams which wet her entirely between decks so that few could sleep dry in their beds. This was not from the rain so much as the sea breaking upon her side. In short it appears that the negligence of those who caulk’d her has been the cause of this: a circumstance so uncomfortable in a long voyage & so unfavourable to the health of the people that it well deserves the enquiry of those under whose inspection ships are fitted out.

Unlike the previous voyage, Cook had not taken oversight of the repair of Resolution prior to departure and it was in a poor state. Anderson’s entry highlights this in his careful documentation but as Beasley points out, his entry also shows his caring nature for the crew he was responsible for.


Should doctors view it in their remit to improve the living and working environment of patients?

Anderson also reflected on the treatment of some members of the indigenous populations the crew encountered:

FRIDAY 9TH MAY 1777. An Indian of some consequence who was with Fee’nou stole on board for which he was severely flogg’d, then had his hands tied firmly behind and was carry’d to the place where we traded on shore but not releas’d till a large hog was brought for his ransom. I am far from thinking there was any injustice in punishing this man for the theft, as it cannot be determined what might be the consequence if such practices had been permitted, but that he should be confin’d in a painfull posture for some hours after, or a ransom demanded after proper punishment for the crime had been inflicted I believe will scarcely be found consonant with the principles of justice or humanity upon the strictest scrutiny.

Again, a short while later in the journey he recounts another episode:

SATURDAY 28TH JUNE 1777. Few Canoes off and all the Indians have left the place near the tent except a few villains who were very troublesome & constantly endeavouring to commit some petty theft. They were so audacious as to throw cocoa nuts at some of our people (which however might in great measure be imputed to their own imprudence in admitting these people to childish libertys with them at first) and threaten them with clubs, for which we seized three of them, tied them to trees and flogg’d them very severely, afterwards cutting a large cross in the arm of one with a knife which was certainly the least excusable part of the punishment. One of them was also fird at in the morning for some flagrant attempt of the same kind by a centinel, no certainly hit him, as he was seen to be supported by several others after crossing the small creek near the place.


Do you feel confident and comfortable enough to challenge the actions of your superiors?

On a more traditionally medical matter, Anderson writes of the diseases he noted in Tonga and is clearly upset that Europeans had introduced syphilis to the local population:

WEDNESDAY 16TH JULY 1777: I believe the most destructive is a European one introduc’d amongst them most probably by the ships that visited them in 1773, which has already begun to make fatal ravages amongst them, many having lost their voice and a great part of their noses, though it should be observe’d they have a disease amongst themselves that affects the nose, but only destroys the lower part of the sides wheras the other fixes chiefly about the bony part.* The injury these people have receiv’d from us by communicating this certain destroyer of mankind is not to be repair’d by any method whatsoever: for it is not barely depriving them of life at last that forms the greatest part of the misfortune, but is rendering them completely miserable while alive from their not knowing how to stop its progress and depriving them at the same time of that intercourse between the sexes which most probably is a principal ingredient of happiness in a country where custom has laid but little restraint upon it, and religion has not branded it with the name of a crime.The man who has rob’d, murder’d and been guilty of all the Catalogue of human crimes is innocent when compar’d to the one who did such a thing knowingly. An adequate punishment may be found perhaps for a fault, however heinous, that may be committed upon an individual, but is it in the power of man to invent tortures equal to those felt by a whole nation that the aggressor in this case might be properly repay’d? Humanity itself must startle at the thought of making a single object miserable in this respect, even for a short time, but what must be said when re reflect that in the present circumstance the misery is not only entaild upon thousands who now live but must of necessity be convey’d to endless generations?

*This other disease noted by Anderson may well have been Yaws which is closely related to Syphilis

yawsGangosa, the destruction of the bone and cartilage of the nose, associated with yaws
Image taken from


Should doctors have the right to curtail the freedom and behaviour of one individual to protect another?

It is reported that Anderson and Charles Clerke (the captain of the accompanying ship HMS Discovery, himself also infected with TB) had considered asking Cook to stay in the warm climate of the Pacific Islands instead of travelling to the frozen north due to his deteriorating health. Cook, however, had for some unclear reason undergone a significant personality change characterised by a short temper and odd behaviour. By the time Anderson and Clerke had debated the line of argument and how to approach Cook, the delay was too late and as Beasley speculates that a sense of loyalty had exceeded an instinct for self-preservation.

Anderson’s health continued to deteriorate and on 3 August 1778 (aged only 28) he died. He was a well liked member of the crew. Clerke, who also died later in the voyage, gave the following tribute:

The death of this gentleman, is a most unfortunate stroke to our expedition all together; his distinguished abilities as a surgeon, and unbounded humanity, rendered him a most respectable and much esteemed member of our little society; and the loss of his superior knowledge of, and wonted attention to the science of natural history, will leave a void in the voyage much to be regretted.

Cook himself wrote:

Mr Anderson my Surgeon who had been lingering under a consumption for more than twelve months, expired between three and four this afternoon. He was a Sensible young man, an agreeable companion, well skilled in his own profession and had acquired much knowledge in other branches of science. The reader of this journal will have observed how useful an assistant I had found him in the course of the voyage; and had it pleased God to have spared his life, the public, I make no doubt, might have received from him such communications, on various parts of the natural history of the several places we visited, as would have abundantly shown that he was not unworthy of this commendation. Soon after he had breathed his last, land was seen to the westward, twelve leagues distant. It was supposed to be an island and, to perpetuate the memory of the deceased, for whom I had a very great regard, I named it Anderson’s island.

After Anderson died, Cook moved John Law, the surgeon on the Discovery to the Resolution and promoted the naval surgeon and poet David Samwell to the Discovery.



Are you ‘too loyal’ to confront your seniors about any erratic behaviour they might exhibit or to discuss your own working conditions?

Please add your thoughts on Anderson in the comments below and whether the qualities of a ‘good’ doctor are timeless.  In the next post, we will explore more about what happened to Anderson Island.


William Anderson was a multifaceted professional with interdisciplinary skills that were utilised in challenging circumstances. He had a scientific eye and carefully documented his findings. He reflected on the standards of care for his crew and highlighted some of the inhumane and unjust actions of those superior in rank to him. Yet, he was simultaneously considered loyal and placed his work above his own health. He appears to belong to that rank of doctors often reminisced about by more modern members of the medical community but died too young to achieve his full potential and recognition.

Further resources

Beaglehole, JC. (1967). The Journals of Captain James Cook on his Voyages of Discovery: Volume 3, part 1; Appendix 1 A journal of a Voyage made in his Majesty’s Sloop Resolution May 16th 1776 Wm. Anderson

Williams, G. (2013). Naturalists at sea.

Promise cut short: the career of William Anderson (full text)

David Samwell (1751–98): surgeon on the Discovery

Dr. William Anderson: forgotten philologist

One thought on “More than a ship’s surgeon: William Anderson

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s